Game Changer

Mixing gaming with work can improve employee engagement and business strategy

By Jim Romeo Jul 19, 2010
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At Canon U.S.A., technicians play a video game to learn how and where replacement parts go in a copier.

At UPS, new truck drivers are trained using a virtual game. Previously, nearly a third of the drivers failed their traditional training program. But after UPS started using a video game for training, the failure rate dropped to 10 percent.

Spending hours playing such games as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, once viewed as a bad habit, is now becoming an effective tool to train employees, implement business strategy and improve competitive advantage.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, Americans spent $11.7 billion on computer and video games in 2009, up from $5.8 billion in 2000. Sixty-eight percent of American households play them; 42 percent of Americans have a video console in their home; one in four gamers is over the age of 50.

It’s not just video games.

“Games have been used for generations in countless cultures to train people in the skills needed in those cultures,” said Stephen Balzac, professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. “Businesses will be looking more and more at games that help prepare people for the modern workforce,” he said.

‘Game-based simulations actually put learners in the driver’s seat and get their occupational blood pumping.’

Scott Randall, president, BrandGames

Workplace issues such as business ethics, negotiation skills, conflict management and decision-making under stress are complex topics that lend themselves well to games for training and collaboration exercises, experts say.

Cover topics in a game that includes motion, sound, color, challenge and excitement, and employees do not seem to mind “playing” at all.

“It's about delivering an experience that makes the maximum use of the learner’s time, energy and attention and gets out of the way of the learning,” said Scott Randall, president of New York City-based BrandGames.

“When you play a true game, you can't get enough. … Game-based simulations actually put learners in the driver’s seat and get their occupational blood pumping.”

Getting their blood pumping is something that training and development managers are always trying to do.

“Using gaming for training encourages excitement amongst employees—especially younger generations—as they are learning on formats and technologies that they are comfortable and familiar with,” said Stephen Jones, training and development director for UPS in Atlanta. “This improves their engagement with the training materials as well as keeps them interested in the information being presented. In our experience, gaming helps employees become more excited about their positions, as they are confident in their ability to properly execute their tasks.”

Paul Myerson, a managing partner with Logistics Planning Associates in Matawan, N.J., concurs. He developed the Lean Supply Chain and Logistics Simulation game as a training and team-building tool for corporations to use to simulate scenarios of supply and demand of warehouse inventory. Myerson’s board game is played in a group setting where employees interact with each other in the same room. “Kernels of new ideas are planted so that they always have some ‘takeaway’ to make improvements to their companies.”

Games on the Go

Using gaming in an organizational setting is growing as workers have a new stride in their step: They often have a smart phone that they use for, among other things, gaming.

Brian Baker, vice president and practice leader at Aon Consulting, a human capital consulting firm, believes that growth in smart phones will force organizations to re-examine their use as a social media tool and subsequently create applications for employees to use with them wherever they go.

Baker cites research that states that the number of smart phones in the United States will increase from 100 million in 2009 to nearly 1 billion by 2013. The market for phone apps is expected to climb from $1.94 billion to $15.65 billion in the same period.

“As the digital horizon continues to broaden, we will see solutions that leverage them,” said Randall. “The key is to reach learners ‘where they live’ and engage them at the highest possible level,” he said.

Baker believes that the advancement of social gaming for use by employees will be linked to geo-location services.

“Providers such as Gowalla, MyTown, Foursquare and others have made checking in at a location via a user’s smart phone a widely popular activity that will likely increase as Facebook and Twitter add their own geo-location capabilities,” he said. “For employers, this will enable them to create location-based games with employees using their smart phones for scavenger hunts that encourage cross-department collaboration. Location-based gaming can increase learning during internal meetings and conferences with rewards given out based on check-ins.”

Another factor fueling the gravitas of gaming is a growing U.S. population who, in their personal lives, use games on social networking sites.

“The explosion of Facebook applications over the past two years indicates there is a significant market for social network-based gaming,” said Baker. More than “500 million users worldwide are on Facebook, and these users are spending a significant time using social games. According to AppData.com, an independent research web site, the top five most-used applications on Facebook are all social games, with Farmville leading the way at approximately 64 million active users during the month of May [2010]. Connecting employees on Facebook through incentivized social gaming will be more commonplace in the market in the next few years,” Baker said.

Competitive Advantage

A common perception about gaming in the workplace is that it is used mostly as a training tool. However, David Piltz, managing partner with The Learning Key in Washington Crossing, Pa., and chair of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association, sees games being more widely used by organizations in strategic planning. “Imagine a company visually documenting their mission, vision, values and goals and then creating a face-to-face board game for new employees to learn about the company,” he said, “for divisions to learn about other divisions in order to identify potential collaborations, and for the executive level to assess the company’s progress. Every employee would know of the game and would play it weekly—ensuring employees are engaged and excited about their work. The game would create a common language for all employees and would be a visible reminder of why the organization exists.

“Upper management can use it to constantly review strategy and create future strategy so stagnation never occurs,” Piltz said.

“Most of the talent required by companies in the future will come from the so-called net generation,” said Ivo Wenzler, director of Accenture’s Talent and Organization Performance Practice.

“Gaming will play a major role in engaging the new generations of talent as well as in helping organizations develop and maintain the ability to learn faster and better than the competition. Learning through gaming can be the most sustainable competitive advantage.”

Proceed with Caution

While gaming for engagement is often accompanied by much fuss, at least one expert says the fun side of gaming can often be expensive and downright cost prohibitive.

“Even if it is not admitted openly, the fun part of a software application can be its weakest selling point,” said Dr. Alex Heiphetz, co-author of Training and Collaboration in Virtual Worlds, (McGraw-Hill, 2009).

“Developers indeed overdo the fun part and under deliver on the ROI side, making it even harder for the rest of us,” he said.

Heiphetz cites Second Life—technology that allows the creation of a virtual world with 3D avatars with many uses for training and gaming. While the technology was attractive and useful, it was expensive and its ROI was disappointing to many, he said.

“The tendency is to get caught up in the fun stuff in the development process,” explained Randall. “Game development is part science and part art—and if it’s done right, it’s closely tied to business objectives and measuring predictable outcomes,” he added.

“When we’re talking to new clients we often have to overcome objections about previous game projects that went awry—it’s usually because someone thought the process was all fun and games and lost sight of what they were developing.”

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer in Chesapeake, Va., with a focus on business and technology topics.

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